About This BlogStarted 29 August 2005, this blog is meant primarily to follow my adventures around the world. There will undoubtedly be detours into other things that interest me.
Yangon, 4:30 AMWhen I returned to Yangon from Bagan, I took the bus. As is often the case with buses in this country, either the departure time or the arrival time is designed to be as inconvenient as is physically possible. Some departures are at 5:00 AM, but mine was at 3:00 PM. To equalize this convenience, we arrived at Yangon at 4:00 AM only to be assailed by taxi touts offering prices to town (did I say "inconvenient?" the bus station is farther from the city than the airport) at twice the day rates. I negotiated a better fare, while simultaneously earning the last delivery from the share taxi I was stuffed into. This gave me a very interesting hour to look at the city. The air is actually fairly cool at this time of day, and consequently there are a good number of people out jogging. This is a strange thing to see, particularly as all of these people are running in the middle of the road. Stranger yet when you consider that there are almost no street lights and about 10% of the cars insist on running with their lights off. But those who question the sanity of these joggers are unfamiliar with the sidewalks in the developing world - pretty much everything I'm saying here would apply equally to Mumbai, New Delhi, or Bangkok, although I haven't seen the 4AM joggers there. Most sidewalks here are very battered, if you can find them at all. The first thing you need to know is that the sewer runs directly under the sidewalk, and at many places the concrete pads that should be covering the sewers are simply gone. This may be for a multitude of reasons, from the trivial (a place to spit betel juice) to the critical (severe flooding during the rainy season required a bigger entry to the sewer). Other parts of the sidewalk frequently look like they've been torn up in anticipation of repairs that never came. And then there are the vendor's carts and shacks, often taking up better than half the width of any flat patch of sidewalk left - especially if it's on the shady side of the street. Negotiating this incredible obstacle course in the dark would inevitably lead to a sprained ankle - if you were lucky. Jogging in the street seems pretty sane to me. During the day, even less sidewalk is available as any food vendor has set out one or several small tables and stools (looking like they escaped from a child's backyard plastic patio set). If the vendor's food is any good, these tiny tables are populated by people eating noodles or sipping tea, while the vendor chops, stirs, and fries. It's now too hot to jog, so you walk slowly and try to stay in the shade.
Meeting PeopleI've met a lot of people in my five weeks of travelling. Bas, in Thailand, spent a couple hours teaching me Thai. The people on the bus to Taunggyi (particularly Aung Myo, mentioned in an earlier entry) were all kind. I toured Taunggyi guided by Shwe Yo, and in the company of Susanne and Heidi, both from Switzerland. I invited Martin (from Germany) to join the four of us for dinner that night. Martin will try pretty much anything once: if it walks, flies, or swims, he'll eat it. He says roast crickets are very tasty, and rather crunchy. He also says that chewing betel is a must - it's like drinking three beers at once (my take: about two beers). Anne Marie Power gave me an extensive introduction to Shan paper and balloon making at the festival (she's an artist with an interest in paper). I took a boat around Inle Lake in the company of two Israeli beekeepers and the deputy minister of Agriculture for Myanmar, also mentioned in a previous entry. I toured a couple of the ancient cities around Mandalay with Claus (from Denmark) and Calvin (from Singapore), both hardcore photographers carrying about 12 pounds each of gear. I reconnected with Susanne and Heidi to take a horse cart around Bagan.
In Myanmar, the commonest visitor nationalities seem to be French, German, Israeli, and Australian, pretty much in that order. This is very different than in Thailand, where Aussies dominate and the American presence is felt (practically nil here). When tourists talk to each other or to the locals, they do so in English whether that's their native language or not. There have been a few places in Myanmar where the French presence is so strongly felt (I noticed this in Bagan and Taunggyi) that some of the locals have opted to learn better French than English.
Big Buddha Day
When I say "big," I mean it in the physical sense ... I saw what I believe is the second largest reclining Buddha in Myanmar. I also saw the "Five Storey" seated Buddha, who isn't as large as the "Ten Storey" Buddha in Pyay (which I haven't seen). "Mine is bigger than yours." Interestingly, size DOES matter to Buddhists, at least when it comes to Buddha images and Pagodas. Why? Because you need to "make merit" to be reincarnated as a higher life form in your next life. There are many ways to make merit, but the logic of the hierarchy fails me: I only repeat it as I understand it. Obviously, having good karma (right thought, right actions, etc.) is important. But, like Christianity, there's a certain ability to buy your way into a better state. You make merit by giving money (or food, or whatever) to monks. You make merit by giving stuff to nuns, but you make less merit. I asked why, and was told that it's because the nuns have so many fewer precepts to uphold: only about ten compared to the 228 or so of the monks. Clearly the monks are more righteous (my word). This means there are less nuns, and they have more trouble getting donations. You make merit by giving to beggars, but clearly they are upholding no precepts at all, so it isn't too much merit. I think both Buddha and Jesus would have disliked this logic. And ... you make merit by building pagodas. The bigger, the better. Many kings, and even Ne (pronounced "nay") Win, the previous general in charge of this country, have had a crack at this. Look at the incredible number of pagodas at Bagan (around 2500, depending on who you ask).
The eyes of this Buddha are particularly disconcerting (sorry, it doesn't show well in the picture). I would hesitate to call them "realistic," but they're disconcerting and mesmerizing. They're three foot pieces of glass made by the local Na-Gar Glass Factory which I visited the last time I was in Yangon. Na-Gar is a very low tech place, producing some rather simple but nice products. The owner seems to alway be happy to give tours - he doesn't advertise locally, but his factory is in just about every tourist guidebook there is. He's proud of the eyes and likes to talk about them: they were difficult, and required dozens of attempts to finally produce a product to stare you down.
The image is inside a very large and rather unattractive metal shed. For a very interesting comparison of styles, take a look as well at the Wat Pho Reclining Buddha in Bangkok.
Back in YangonI've returned to Yangon, a semi-familiar place. It's nice to know my way around, at least a little bit. I now have access to a cheap and (by Myanmar standards) reasonably fast internet connection. Unfortunately, I don't currently have a photo editor. At one place in Mandalay I downloaded and installed both the Gimp and Firefox! And, in a moment of geek one-upmanship, I have to add "over a dial-up line." Needless to say, I returned to that place more than once to continue to use the software. Of course, my ability to install software shows that their security wasn't too good, but I'm becoming resigned to this.
The men still wear skirts. You know that physical tick most glasses wearers have, when their glasses slide down their nose and they push them back up? Longyis often loosen in use, and when they do the wearer will untie it, stretch it out to both sides, flap it front to back twice, and then quickly bring the sides in and fold and tie them at the center. This is a physical tick that you can see among better than a quarter of the country's population.
I have several errands to run in Yangon but I expect to be back in Bangkok by the end of the week. then I'll resume the slightly delayed Thailand - Laos - Vietnam - Cambodia - Thailand loop by heading north to Chiang Mai overland. It'll be interesting to see how land transport in Thailand compares to the horrible roads and old buses of Myanmar. Myanmar is definitely in the Third World, but I have no idea how Thailand is classified. If there was a "Second World," Thailand would be in it: one foot in the poverty of India, the other in the high tech of Japan.
BaganBagan is one of several ancient capitals littered around the countryside. In this case, a series of particularly pious kings around 1300 have made it a primary tourist destination in Myanmar by constructing several hundred stupas all in a small area (about 25 square kilometers) now known as the "Bagan Archeological Zone." What makes this stranger is that all of the houses, even the castles, were made of wood and have all rotted away. What is left is farmed fields with a few trees, littered with more masonry stupas (originally covered in stucco and paint, now mostly gone) than you can imagine. My current internet connection is so poor that I must describe it for you because I cannot upload pictures.
An earthquake in 1975 damaged a lot of the stupas, but most have been repaired. Unfortunately, the government chose to close the upper levels of many of the taller stupas, quoting "structural instability of our priceless heritage" or something along those lines. Not that I really think they're wrong to do this, just disappointed. A few stupas can still be climbed, and the view is quite amazing even from these relatively low viewpoints. The city is gone, replaces by fields. Stupas large and small stretch from the bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River inland for several kilometers, surrounded by farmer's fields, dirt paths, trees, and tourists in horsecarts, buses, and on bikes. The area is large enough that you don't see too many others except at the biggest and most popular stupas: these are also the places where you are promptly surrounded by vendors selling postcards and carvings. And everywhere you have to take your shoes and socks off: happily, I'd had the sense to opt for sandals without socks for the first time on the trip.
The connection at this internet ... hut ... is very bad, and quite expensive - 3000 kyats per hour. I'm running short on kyats, and this is something of a problem as the cash you have when you enter the country is all you have to work with. Credit cards are accepted virtually nowhere (I've seen one craft shop in 24 days of travel that took them), there are no bank machines, and cashing a traveller's cheque is a bureaucratic nightmare that can only be achieved, at some cost, in Yangon. I have enough money, I just need to be a bit cautious. So I may not post again for a few days. I hope to have a picture for you then.
Now I'll climb on my rented bike (1000 kyats a day) to explore the town of Nyaung U and see more stupas!
The original map is from the CIA World Factbook 2002 ... So I find it peculiar that they're using old names: "Rangoon" instead of "Yangon," "Prome" for "Pyay," and "Pegu" for ... I'm not quite sure what. "Pegu" is the old name for Bago, but Bago is down near Yangon. Even if they'd confused it with Bagan, they put it in the wrong place.
I flew from Bangkok to Yangon on November 1st. I stayed in Yangon until the 8th, then made the arduous bus trip to Taunggyi on the 8th and 9th. On the 13th I took a pickup to Nyaungshwe near Inle Lake. On the 17th I went to Heho and caught a flight (all 25 minutes of it) to Mandalay. I will shortly take a bus to Bagan, where I'll be for a couple days, and then I'll head back to Yangon for a couple days, and then back to Bangkok.
Mandalay Fort and Palace
[Sorry for the poor editing - I had most of the tools but not the time to do it better.]
The scale of Mandalay Fort is kind of hard to grasp: the walls are two kilometers (perhaps more!) on each side, with a 70 meter moat all the way around. Two kilometers: at my reasonably good pace, that's 38 minutes along one side and half of another. The walls are massive, and in good repair. Unfortunately the palace in the middle burned to the ground in 1942. What you see above is the reproduction palace, seen from the reproduction watchtower. It looks quite grand from up here, but on the ground you can see that the buildings (made of concrete and corrugated steel roofing - probably originally teak) are mostly vacant and untended, paint already peeling off although they are (I think) less than ten years old. Three buildings near the entrance are better tended, and the grounds deteriorate as you get further from them. The fort walls are so far from the palace you can't even see them in this image. Most of the four square kilometers inside the walls are off limits to foreigners: it's occupied by the army. Apparently soldiers grow vegetables to supplement their wages.
Here's the watchtower:
Before I left Canada I visited Engrish.com a couple times. I haven't really found anything worthy of their site, although a young Thai girl wearing a shirt that said "Je suis horny" came close. It's not that it's bad english, it's just that you have to wonder if she had any idea what it meant.
When you're reading Engrish.com you're usually in a mood to misinterpret, and a big sign that read "To Bang Sue" was a favourite with me and the friends I was with at the time. I realized that "Bang Sue" might in fact be a place in Thailand - I'd seen a couple "Bang Whatever" names in the guidebook. On my last day in Thailand, I saw the sign. "Bang Sue" is the final station on the new underground in Bangkok, so signs for platforms headed that way all have a sign saying "To Bang Sue."
Another thing that had me scrambling for notepaper was the Coca Cola Restaurant menu in Taunggyi: their menu included classics like "Mushroom and Rabbit Greens Fry," in the 'Prawns' section was "Fighting Ball (Mutton)," "Toad Fry (Dry)," "Toad Fry (With Gravy)," "Mixed Fish Spou," "Pork Head Mixed," "Pork Brain Fry with Sour & Chilly Sauce," and finally, "Pork Brain and Ear Mixed."
A Couple More PhotosWatching sunset from U Bein's Bridge is on almost every tour itinerary, so I was surrounded by foreigners ... and monks. There's a monastery nearby. Here's why it's so popular:
This is a walkway at the top of Mandalay Hill:
Mingun Paya Photos
If you're not getting the scale of the place, here are the stairs up:
MandalayMandalay is a hot and dusty city. But it's not as hot as Yangon or Bangkok, and it's less humid. Both Rudyard Kipling and Rush have referenced Mandalay - I've never read Kipling, so it must be Rush that brought me here. Can anyone direct me to the lyrics of the Rush song that I'm thinking of? It's one of their older ones (around "A Farewell to Kings?") but I've had no luck with Google.
Mandalay is more like India than other Myanmar cities I've seen - the appearance, the number of beggars and peddlars. I haven't missed the beggars, peddlars, or touts at all. Mandalay also has the highest number of monks of any location in Myanmar - not just my observation, the place has more monasteries per capita than any other city. As in Yangon, I've been approached several times by people wanting to practice English with me, including a couple of initiates who led me around Mandalay Hill this morning.
Yesterday, in the company of Claus (from Denmark) and Calvin (from Singapore), I toured both Mingun and Inwa - two of the four ancient cities surrounding Mandalay. Calvin and Claus are both avid photographers, carrying serious gear - while I envy the capabilities they have because of that gear, I don't envy them the weight! They're both carrying at least 10 pounds of camera equipment, quite possibly twice that. My little Nikon 5400 gets me by, and weighs only about a pound. We had some interesting discussions about the state of digital photography.
Mingun requires you take a ferry ride - about 3/4 of an hour on the way there, upstream. In theory, the downstream return should be shorter - that's if the boat motor doesn't break, and you don't spend 15 minutes drifting in the Ayeyarwady river while your pilot dives head first into the engine with a set of wrenches. As with the bus ride to Taunggyi, all that was needed was some patience, and we were on our way again - albeit at a reduced speed.
I don't currently have access to photo editing software, so I have no pictures at the moment. I got some good ones on the trip yesterday, I hope I'll be able to post them soon. I was particularly impressed with Mingun Paya - the King who was constructing it died and then the base was split by an earthquake, after which it was never completed. The masonry base measures 72 meters (slightly larger than a yard) by 72 meters, and stands 50 meters high. It's immense. You have to take off your shoes and socks to climb it, as it's considered holy ground even though it was never finished. The views from the top are great - just watch your step when you get to the gaping crevasses left by the earthquake!
The food here is wonderful: not only is there Chinese and Indian, you can also get both Bamar (the incredibly oily and tasty curries that dominate the south) and Shan (the somewhat less oily and more varied cuisine of the northeastern division, which I enjoyed in Taunggyi and Nyaungshwe). I think I've actually lost weight on the trip despite eating so well (and so cheaply!). If I have, it's the result of walking several kilometers every day.
One of the trishaw drivers told me that this line ka was coming from Taunggyi (to Nyaungshwe) now that the festival is over - the full moon was last night. That's an hour ride hanging off the side of a truck, or sitting on the roof. About 35 people plus luggage, and they sometimes put more on these things: a fellow traveler counted 45 on their run to Taunggyi.
Inle LakeInle Lake is a large, very shallow fresh water lake in the hills of the Shan Division of Myanmar. A large number of the Intha people live on the lake, on houses on stilts above the water. They collect clumps of floating vegetation into small islands (usually strips a meter or two wide and several meters long), pen them in with bamboo poles so they won't leave, cover them in dirt, and grow stuff on them. It's particularly surreal to be boating down a main thoroughfare and watch the tomato plants lining the channel bob about in the boat wake. The center of town reminded me somewhat of Venice - a controlled chaos of long boats, with heaps of tourists eating and admiring temples.
The story of how I got on a boat to Inle Lake is another strange one. I had hoped to find someone to share the cost of the day-long boat ride, but you never meet people when you want to, only when you're not worrying about it. So this morning I went down to the canal, and wandered about looking for foreigners. I approached about five before I found someone who was heading out today and was willing to share a boat. Those who know me are probably astonished (as they should be) that I would just walk up to strangers and talk to them. So this is how I came to ride a boat with two Israeli beekeepers and the Deputy Minister of Agriculture for Myanmar. They were here to assist Myanmar in improving their beekeeping, and this was their day off. In the end, they treated me to the trip. They were good company: I hope I was too.
Notice that we do seem to have electrical power here.
And these were just somewhere in the middle of the lake ...
I was at a monastery in Kaungdaing yesterday. It had a beautiful view of Inle Lake, so I found a bench and started writing. I accumulated an audience of children, initiates, and occasionally monks. They were apparently fascinated by written english although it appeared none could speak the language, never mind deciphering my handwriting. This young girl (and the younger boy behind her who I took to be her brother) watched me for as much as half an hour. Very serious, never cracked a smile - most of the children giggled and laughed, or at least smiled back at me. But the only time I got a reaction was when I showed her this picture on the camera screen.
Thanakha is the bark of a tree which is ground off and mixed with water and then applied to the face. The purpose is either skin protection or makeup or both, depending on who and when you ask. Many women wear it (very few wear lipstick or eye makeup), and some male children wear it but not adult men. I don't know why, this is just what I see.
The Importance of Symbols
A number of people who ride motorcycles in Taunggyi sport Nazi swastikas or the Nazi eagle on their stormtrooper helmets.
I remember reading an issue of Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" graphic novel ten or more years ago, in which the character Death (a young goth woman) is spending her one day in one hundred years as a mortal. And on this day, a man steals her ankh necklace thinking it will give him magical abilities. Death's companion is shocked at how unconcerned she is at the loss of her ankh, but Death says "it's just a symbol." A little while later she buys an ankh at a vendor table for $10, commenting that "symbols have great power." Obviously it struck home with me, as I've remembered it ever since. The swastika is "just" a symbol, but it's also one that still makes many, many people very uncomfortable. I think the people who wear these stickers have very little sense of history.
Pretty Picture Post
Sometimes you take a picture and it's not at all what you expected but it's great anyway. I don't even know what I was trying to do here.
These people were watching the launch of animal balloons.
More Transportation Options: Motorcycles, Line-Kas, and Tri-shaws
Aung Myo and myself. Not a great picture, but important to me. Aung Myo is the man who helped me on the bus and he joined me for a breakfast of Shan noodles this morning. I made the mistake of asking what one of the darker pieces among the noodles was (I was afraid it was beef, which I don't eat), and he said "solid chicken blood." Doesn't actually have a lot of flavour, and the whole thing was very good. Then he drove me on his motorcycle (which would be called a scooter in North America) to the pick-up point for the Nyaungshwe line-ka. I hope to stay in touch with him, as I really enjoyed his company.
The Line-ka ("saungthaew" or "samlor" in Thailand, "line ka" or "bus" in Myanmar) is a form of transportation that wouldn't quite make it in N.A. They consist of a pickup truck (small or mid-sized, none of your F-150s here) with benches in the bed and a roof. As Lonely Planet says, a line-ka isn't considered ready to go until there are people hanging off every available hand hold. There are at least two kinds of line-ka here, ones that run between towns and ones that run set routes in town. The latter have a driver and a barker/conductor who collects money and yells out destinations at the stops. These guys usually ride hanging off the side of the truck, the most dangerous and precarious riding position. I rode one of these to the Festival two nights ago - I wasn't even sure if it was going to the Festival, but the barker (who spoke no english) insistently waved me on. What the hell. I rode hanging off the back because the body was full, and ended up at the Festival where the barker refused my money. And I rode one back as well, on the roof with my knees around my ribs. It was a blast. It cost me K100, or about $0.08US.
Today I got another taste of line-ka travel, taking the one hour, 19 mile ride from Taunggyi to Nyaungshwe (the closest town to Inle Lake, the big tourist draw around here). Remember I said "I rode hanging off the back because the body was full?" I hadn't dealt with "full" yet. I was packed in the back like a sardine in a can, my backpacks on the roof with three or four more people, and two guys rode the whole hour standing on the tailgate. The descent from Taunggyi was beautiful, winding roads down the hills by small waterfalls, then into the rice paddies that surround Nyaungshwe. Water everywhere, houses (such as they are - one room, walls of woven bamboo) on stilts, raised walkways to the houses.
Then I caught a trishaw to my new hotel. Trishaws are bicycles with sidecars, with two seats: one faces forward, one backward. The trishaw for ten minutes was a lot more than the line-ka, but that was fine because I had no idea where I was going. As I was arriving, I encountered two Swiss women that I had toured Taunggyi with on my first full day there. They were leaving, but I hope we will meet again in Mandalay.
Balloons by Night over Taunggyi
Probably my best shot of the night's balloons, this is one of the fireworks balloons (the more successful one) I mentioned earlier. I'm very pleased with this picture.
Balloons by Day at Taunggyi
One of the animal balloons I mentioned earlier sailing above Taunggyi.
The Road to Taunggyi
This is a picture taken after the road ahead of our bus was blocked by rocks. Many of the locals opted to walk past the rocks and try to find other transportation as we were within about 15 km of Kalaw. The rest of us waited out the twelve hours it took to clear the road. You can see the line of buses and trucks ahead of us, there was a much larger line behind us. Private cars are very uncommon in Myanmar.
Taunggyi, FestivalThe bus ride from Yangon to Taunggyi was an education in Third World roads and transportation. Most North Americans would see that the distance from Yangon to Taunggyi was 700 km and assume that the bus would take about eight hours. This is because we haven't travelled much in the Third World. I knew that we were to leave at noon and arrive at 9:00 AM the next day. What I wasn't prepared for was a rock fall in the hills about 20 miles from Kalaw (50 miles from our destination). At 4:00 AM we came to a complete halt (having never topped 60 km/h on the very potholed roads) behind a long line of trucks and buses, where we were to sit for 12 hours. It rained most of the day, so we were mostly confined to the bus. I had had the sense to pack a lot of water ... but no food. But people offered me food, so I didn't starve. There was a young man that I met, perhaps 18, who spoke some English and was very friendly. He kept me informed about what little information we received. He also told me that in fact the bus didn't go to Taunggyi, but stopped eight miles short ... When we arrived, he said "come with me, my parents pick me up." So at 9:00 PM I got a ride in a big new Nissan Diesel truck with his extended family, and they delivered me right to the guest house I wanted to stay at.
The kindness people have shown me on this trip has astounded me. There have been several times where I would have been lost (sometimes quite literally) without their help.
To forestall those who might warn me about scammers and con artists, I've already had a prank played on me (no money lost, just a bit of pride) and I pay very close attention to circumstances before I accept offers of assistance.
I considered going to Mandalay before Taunggyi, because Taunggyi is currently in the middle of a very popular festival and I was afraid that I'd be unable to get a room. I did find a room at my chosen guest house, although it has a shared bathroom with cold shower only - the latter is incredibly bracing in the cool morning mountain air!
But it's all worth it, because the festival is fantastic. Depending on who you ask, this is either "The Festival of Light(s)" or the "Fire Balloon Festival." The latter is more accurate, but doesn't begin to cover the carnival atmosphere or the sheer beauty of the balloons that are launched.
To get to the balloon launches you have to walk several hundred meters of avenue lined with vendors, selling clothing, fake Ray-Bans, all kinds of carnival food (Myanma style, some of it quite good, all greasy), Thanakha wood (used for makeup), miniature impromptu bars, betel vendors, and lots of other stuff. There is, of course, a strip with carnival gambling which is pretty much exactly the same as it is all over the world: put your money on the number, the wheel spins or the dice roll, and your money goes away. Then you find the launch field, already a mud pit on day two of the seven day festival. There's also a "VIP" box, guarded by the military. I'm a VIP simply by virtue of my foreignness, which is both disturbing and wonderful. The festival is extremely popular with Burmese tourists, but there are very few westerners here so the VIP platform was fairly uncrowded.
But the balloons ... During the day they launch huge multi-coloured paper balloons in the shape of animals (birds are commonest, but elephants and others are also flying). These things are about six meters tall, and have a burner in a bottom hole that consists of what I think is tar-covered rope wrapped around a bamboo frame. It burns for a long time and is very hard to put out, even with several buckets of water. Every launch is prefaced with a great deal of dancing and banging of drums by the team. If the launch goes badly, things get even more interesting: one I saw didn't get enough lift and a breeze took it into the nearby power lines, where it immediately incinerated itself in a matter of seconds. The resident fire truck hosed down the remains (including the makeshift roof of the vendor shed underneath). But if the launch goes well, we have a huge beautiful animal sailing majestically up into the sky, where it creates a surreal sight floating over the gorgeous hills and monasteries of Taunggyi.
The computer I'm at has no USB, so I have no pictures for you. They can't do justice to the magic, but I'll try to post a couple later.
The people in the afternoon are just amateurs compared to the ones that come out in the evening. They bring even larger balloons (more classically shaped, no animals), but they decorate them with lights. And fireworks. The lights are candles: as the balloon fills, the team quickly hooks sets of candles in brackets that hold the flame away from the balloon. The candles are arranged in patterns, usually Burmese letters, sometimes images. It gets even better: once the balloon is full and straining at the ropes, they bring out a basket/undercarriage that is quickly attached. With my favourite launch, this consisted of thousands of multi-coloured candles. Once the balloon took off, it started shedding candles, each on its own miniature paper parachute. It sailed up, leaving a trail of slowly descending candles in red, blue, yellow, orange, and green ... It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
This one was followed by a balloon with a basket full of fireworks - this arrangement is fairly common, but this one started launching the fireworks a little too early, and a little too downwards. The huge crowd on the field was rained in sparks, chunks of burning stuff, and rockets. Suddenly I was even more happy to be a "VIP," and it occurred that making foreigners VIPs might be enlightened self-interest on the part of the city government as we had a corrugated roof overhead. This chaotic mess was beautiful, hilarious, and scary all at once. It didn't seem to seriously injure anyone, and it certainly didn't dampen the party. Later, another fireworks balloon went up properly and it was breathtaking, sending off rockets and sparkly stuff for two or three minutes as it ascended. It even launched a paper airplane that made lazy near-perfect circles around the field ... and then started releasing sparkles as it continued to glide down.
I went to bed after 1:00 AM, and was awoken at 7:30 AM by the banging of drums in another parade just outside my window. I expect to be short on sleep for a while, but damn, it's worth it!
Botataung Paya, departure for Taunggyi
This picture was taken at Botataung Paya. The pool the monk is looking at is full of turtles - a good reminder of Buddhist practice as they never rush, not even when people buy turtle food from the vendor and dump it in the pool. The turtles were a welcome relief from the huge selection of Buddha images ... Do I sound jaded? In this one regard, perhaps.
My departure for Taunggyi (pronounced "Tonjy," more or less) was delayed because I couldn't get a ticket for today. I leave tomorrow, and paid the remarkably high fee of $16US for what sounds like an 18 hour ride (leaving at noon) which will also stop in Mandalay on the way there. Should be quite an adventure!
Update: the bus didn't go by way of Mandalay, it went direct to Taunggyi.
Picture of Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya is on pretty much the only hill in the Yangon area. It's also the most spectacular Buddhist site in the city, with a huge chedi (or "zedi," as I think they call them here) and dozens of smaller shrines surrounding it. There are many, many Buddha images, many people praying, and many people (Burmese, not westerners) just hanging out. Like Thai temples, you have to take your shoes off to enter. Unlike Thai temples, you must also remove your socks.
The pagoda you see here has the life story of the Buddha in pictures.
Bits and Pieces - YangonThe monsoon is supposed to be over, but we've had some fairly heavy rain in the last few days. This is apparently quite unusual: when the monsoon ends, it ENDS. We should be in the dry season. The drainage system here is totally unable to handle heavy rain, and I thought hopping puddles in my neighbourhood was bad until I caught a cab and he was driving through 15 cm (6 inches) of water in places on Baho Road.
Gmail is only intermittently available, and today I can get one message every five minutes. But I can post to the blog. I'm at Cyberworld across from Trader's Hotel, one of the ritziest hotels in the city. Their speeds vary between slow and go-eat-a-meal-while-the-email-sends - if your site comes up at all.
My plan is to go to Taunggyi tomorrow night - it's an overnight, 14 hour bus ride (if the bus doesn't break). I'm told that leaving Yangon is somewhat akin to stepping back a century in time - even though you may already feel you've gone back two or three decades coming to Yangon. This probably means that I won't be posting for a couple weeks. I'm told to expect horse- and ox-carts, bicycles, and a distinct lack of motorized vehicles. Power outages have been rare here, but that seems to be good luck: they're normally pretty common.
The Nissan Sunny and Toyota Corolla make up the majority of vehicles on the road in Yangon (about 50% of the cars I see). Paul would be amused: the Corolla wagon he gave up about four years ago is alive and well by the dozens over here. Occasionally you'll see a perfectly maintained VW Beetle (old style). Don't know what it is about them, perhaps they're a bit of a cult car here? Most other cars are quite battered.
One interesting cultural point in Myanmar: the way you hand things to people. You pass with the right hand, and the left hand touches the inside of the right elbow as you do it. This is also common in parts of Africa, but I didn't see it in Thailand - although it's the kind of thing you may not notice unless someone points it out ...
Snacks, Yangon Style
I think these are roasted crickets. I saw a couple of vendors in downtown Yangon. Didn't try any.
English Class in YangonTwo days ago at Shwedagon Paya I was invited by three women to practice English with them. The one who talked the most, Win Win Mar, wants to be a tourist guide. All three of them are in an English class downtown, and they invited me to attend a class, which I did yesterday.
That was an experience: a large but very crowded unconditioned classroom in a very run down building. Half the class was monks, although I don't know why. Most of the other students are looking at the business possibilities English represents, but that probably isn't true of the monks. The teacher (U Myint Aung, aka "UMA," which is also the name of the school) looks (from a North American perspective) like an old hippy: hair well down his back in a ponytail, little oval glasses, and slightly twitchy. Every few minutes he'd pick up his microphone on the little stage at the front, and rant at them in mixed Burmese and bad English. His English was ... comprehensible, heavily accented, and well structured. A couple other foreigners recruited at other sites trickled in after me - a woman from Germany who spoke good English, and a woman from Montreal who had just got to Yangon after six months in India. Each of us was surrounded by a horde of very friendly students. As a student arrived, they'd stick out their hand and introduce themselves. Burmese names are a little easier for a English speaker than Thai names, as there are less sounds that are difficult for us to pronounce. After the introduction, every single one would then ask where I was from and how long I'd been in Myanmar. Then followed the other questions they'd been taught, in varying order: what do I think of Myanmar, how old am I, and am I married. No one believed my age, I evidently look much younger to the Burmese: my favourite guess was 26.
I did manage to learn some very interesting things. Monks do leave monkhood if they no longer want to be monks, but they usually stay for many years (unlike Thailand, where stays of a couple months are common).
A lot of people here - almost entirely men - chew betel nuts. This stains and damages their teeth, and leaves them spitting red goo - there are stains everywhere on the roads and sidewalks. It's also quite addictive. I asked about this, and one of the monks showed me his very damaged teeth, and a huge scar on his stomach where he had two operations as a result of chewing betel. He's quit now. I asked what was in it, and he went and got one of the packages: there are carts everywhere that will prepare it for you, and it's very cheap. The nut itself has a white body with red veins through it, and there are several chopped up pieces placed in a leaf of some sort along with some dried tobacco. You stick the leaf and its contents in your mouth and chew.
I stayed in the class for over two hours, and had a very entertaining time. When I left, UMA enthusiastically invited each of us to come back any time. It would seem that any time I want a tour guide around the local sites, all I'd have to do is drop in to be a practice subject for a little while and I'd have volunteers to guide me again.
One thing that has really stood out to me here is how incredibly, filthy rich we are compared to these people. I'm lower middle class to start with, and now unemployed, but I have more money than they can even conceive of. This was also the case when I was in India, but my time there was so structured that I never really stopped to think about it. When the three women assisted me in getting a taxi back to where I was staying, they were shocked at the amount the driver wanted (K3000) and the casual ease with which I accepted it ... To me, that's less than $3, to them it's orders of magnitude more than the K10 or so they pay for the bus. Discriminatory pricing is the norm: sites will charge in US$ for foreigners, and locals pay much, much less in Kyat. And of course vendors in stores have a less official but equally enforced policy of jacking up prices when a foreigner tries to buy something.
Everyone Wears SkirtsEveryone (and I do mean 98% of the population) here wears longgyi. Basically a large tube of cloth that is tucked and tied at the waist. It actually looks quite comfortable, but would take some cultural de-assimilation for a westerner to wear one. I would consider it if it wouldn't let the mosquitos up my legs! Everyone also wears flip-flops, and, like Thailand, slips them off to enter a house or temple.
Other unusual things in the country ... Cars are shipped over second hand from Japan (most on the road are at least 15 years old), but they drive on the right hand side of the road. Japanese cars are right-hand drive, so try to picture passing a slow truck when the driver is on the right side ... Not that that stops them. And seat belts are apparently removed or disabled when the cars enter the country. I've already had a couple of "life passing before my eyes" moments, although the lives I saw today were those of a couple of unwise pedestrians.
There aren't actually a lot of cars on the roads. People are allowed three gallons of gas every three days at government prices (about $0.20/gallon) and after that they have to pay more like market price. But until a few days ago the government was heavily subsidizing that price too, and they recently doubled or tripled it. So less people are driving.
I leave it up to you to look up Shwedagon Paya (or Pagoda) if you want to - it's the only "site" I've seen so far.
I had a proper Bamar meal for lunch yesterday. Curries, but very mild. I had three dishes (with rice): venison stew, what they told me was fish balls (it looked and tasted more like tofu, either way very good), and a sort of slightly drier and less sweet version of creamed corn. It was excellent. I think I'll really enjoy the food here. Oh yeah - huge, delicious meal, about $1.80US. ^ TOP
In MyanamarConnections here are staggeringly slow, but costs are also ridiculously low. This is an "upscale" internet cafe in downtown Yangon (with aircon and everything!) and I'm paying K1000/hour, or about $0.80US/per hour. I'm also getting speeds that make a dial-up modem look like a speed demon. So - no pictures. My mail is hard to get to and extremely slow, so, with apologies, those owed messages may have to wait until I leave Myanmar.
Our western lives are so entangled with our computers that this condition of almost being disconnected from the internet probably sounds horrible to many of you. I'm going to find it difficult, but it's probably not a bad thing. I'll post when I can ... I may follow this up with another short message - when I see that this one has successfully posted. ^ TOP